When trying to make one universal statement about memory, one aspect comes to mind. Our memories and the brain structures that support memory are plastic, which means that memory expands and contracts over time and types of stimulation. That statement is true whether you are a child, adolescent, adult, or senior. Obviously the capacity tends towards enhancement when we are young and starts to decline around 50. We then begin to notice the loss of instantaneous recall. This may be especially true for names, titles, and places.
Recognizing if the loss is significant helps us decide whether to ignore such lapses or to take action. There are three broad types of age related memory problems. Normal age related forgetfulness may involve sometimes misplacing things like keys or eyeglasses, forgetting someone’s name, having to sometimes search for a word, forgetting the correct turn while driving and then having to make a course correction. Oftentimes we make light of these.
Mild cognitive impairment comes next. In this case we may often misplace things, forget important events or appointments, have more difficulty finding the right word, frequently forget the names of people and be very slow to recall them, become temporarily lost and have trouble understanding and following directions. At this stage we may worry about our memory loss and others may begin to notice the lapses.
The last and most dreaded type is dementia. In this stage, we forget the intended purpose of things and put them in the wrong place (like car keys in the freezer), may not recall who a person is, lose language skills and avoid social interaction, lose track of time and day, experience severe difficulty with learning and retaining new information, easily become lost or disoriented and have little or no awareness of such cognitive problems.
Happily, these declines are not universal and as I said in the beginning the brain is plastic. Future articles will focus on some general and specific interventions to enhance and preserve memory for as long as we live. Let’s face it, we all want our lapses to be moments and nothing more.
• Patrick Quigley, PhD, LSAC, is a clinical psychologist and licensee for the Cogmed Working Memory Training Program. He has practiced psychology in Ahwatukee for nearly 15 years. Reach him at (480) 759-6191.